Over the past decade, the Transformers films have thrived on trying to outdo each previous installment by balancing bigger explosions and ever more incoherent action with stories designed to appeal towards middle-schoolers. When Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) failed to produce barely half of the franchise’s usual revenue and was accompanied by the series’ worst reviews immediate action was called. Those calls have been answered in the form of Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight. Famed Laika CEO, animator, and producer Knight seems to have done the impossible by directing the best live-action Transformers movie since Michael Bay’s 2007 original. Bumblebee relies on 80s nostalgia in the form of music, fashion, and it’s every bit a retooled version of that same 2007 film.
The movie takes place in a small California beach town during 1989, but Bumblebee actually begins 2 years earlier on the Autobot & Decepticon home-world of Cybertron. The opening scene is a callback to the original animated movie from the 80s and TV cartoons as a massive multi-terrain battle takes place between the two factions. The action is not only a clear step up from previous entries but it’s also the first glimpse of how Bumblebee successfully shows off the famous generation 1 designs of its robotic characters. When Autobot leader Optimus Prime realizes all might be lost, the Autobots retreat, but not before Prime gives his faithful comrade Bumblebee instructions to set up a new home on Earth for the Autobots to regroup.
Bumblebee crash lands on Earth and is immediately attacked by military opposition led by Jack Burns (John Cena) as well as a Decepticon named Blitzwing who’s hellbent on finding the location of Prime. What follows leads to Bumblebee being without a voice-box and with a faulty memory and damaged body parts, but before all is lost he transforms into a 1967 Volkswagen beetle. When Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers Bumblebee in a salvage garage she quickly discovers there is more than meets the eye.
For anyone who has seen the 2007 Transformers, The Iron Giant, Free Willy, E.T, or any other movie about a kid and his friendship with a creature then you have already seen two-thirds of this movie. Fortunately, it’s made enjoyable through a lead performance, some fun action, an 80s-heavy soundtrack, and even some inspired jokes about The Breakfast Club. Charlie and Bumblebee end up enjoying some hijinks without realizing there is a looming threat presiding over them, a threat in the form of a vengeful Burns who’s partnered with Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) in pursuit of Bumblebee. Yes, the bad guys team up with the American government, and yes, the reasons are highly contrived to the point even Burns comments “Why are we trusting robots called Decepticons?” But hey, the 80s were a wild time.
Steinfeld delivers a performance on par with her previous roles in True Grit (2010) and Edge of Seventeen (2016), but due to her playing the one and only human character with depth in Bumblebee her lines bounce off the one-dimensional characters littered throughout this movie. Making Cena a serious deadpan military soldier was a safe choice, but his character truly shines thanks in part to dialogue that’s both self-aware corny. Luckily, human to human interactions are saved by Charlie and Bumblee’s strong dynamic and heartfelt scenes. The climax battle between Bumblebee and the two Decepticons is the clearest example of what was missing in Bay’s movies — clarity. We can see every small detail in these battles, making it easy to follow and keep up with the fun.
Hasbro might have revived the live action Transformers series by focusing on a character we all know and love, but by playing it safe and by the numbers they might have missed the chance to do something truly creative that wasn’t possible with the Bay-directed franchise. Bumblebee covers up its glaring problems by softening you up with 80s references in the form of songs and pop culture, but the actual great moments are far and in-between. Make no mistake, Bumblebee might be slapped with a new fresh coat of paint, but it still runs mostly on par with what you would expect from a Transformers movie.
Despite the script being far from stellar, Bumblebee is still enough to provide entertainment for anyone who enjoyed previous Transformers. Everything you liked about the series is present but without the jarring action, over the top explosions, and screaming you expect from a Bay directed Transformers. Bumblebee is safe and predictable, but still a solid start in what is most likely a series of Transformers movies targeted towards a new generation.
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